Monday, 23 July 2018

Vicky's Book

I've just finished reading Vicky Beeching's memoir Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame.

It's a remarkable book, and an important one. Vicky is known across the conservative evangelical world as a song-writer and performer. Her songs have been sung in mega-churches in the Bible belt of the USA where she lived and worked for several years. After much personal struggle she accepted her sexuality and came out as a gay woman. She immediately incurred the wrath of the constituency she had served faithfully for so long. It entailed not only a spiritual and emotional crisis but an economic one too, for evangelical Christian music was not only her love but her livelihood.

This book is Vicky's story and her apologia. It will have taken real courage to write, just as it took real courage to come out in the first place. I guess that the journey of coming out almost always entails greater or lesser ordeals, or at least the threat of them. So much depends on how your family, friends and community view same-sex relationships. When you are immersed in the environment of conservative religion, still more when you are a public figure in that world, the hazards are infinitely greater. Here's one response on Vicky's Twitter account today that gives a flavour. Vicky you don’t appreciate how vile, debasing and degrading your vision of Jesus is. The gospel is inclusive of those who hear and respond to the call, turning from their selfish, sinful ways, giving up all for Him. The church is meant to be exclusive, keeping out sin and sinners. I don't quote it with any pleasure. You have to wonder what kind of Christianity that Tweeter is following.

So the first thing I want to do is to salute Vicky's bravery in writing so candidly. She has been subject to shedloads of abuse on social media and in hostile reviews that no-one should have to put up with. This book has been written out of a great deal of personal anguish and pain. Those who don't see human sexuality as Vicky now does need at least to respect the integrity out of which she writes and the personal cost to her of doing so. When we hear another person's story, what we do not do is to rush to judgment as some are doing. Rather, we learn to listen empathically, try to understand what has motivated her, even ask the question, could it be that we need to think again about our assumptions and maybe see things differently?

This is where a narrative approach to personal life can be so illuminating. In the book, we overhear Vicky negotiating the spiritual and theological dimensions of her emerging identity as a gay woman. As a Christian formed within evangelicalism, her integrity necessarily demanded that she take the scriptures with the utmost seriousness, as well as examining her conscience before God. For me, the truth-seeking aspects of her book are among the most moving. In the spiritual tradition, conversio is never a once-for-all decision. It's a lifelong habit of "turning round", re-orientating ourselves to the light and grace of God, always seeking "truth in the inward parts" of ourselves. At its best, this is what the journey of personal discovery and awareness, "coming out" if you like, should mean. Vicky exemplifies this beautifully.

It's not that she makes a strikingly original contribution to the church's understanding of homophile relationships. She doesn't set out to, though as a theologian in her own right, Vicky comments on some of the more contentious biblical texts that are quoted in the debate about homosexuality. She also offers analogies from history that show how the church has at times radically re-evaluated its traditional stances when it comes to, for example, the inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles, the place of the earth in the solar system, slavery, and the role of women in the church's leadership. But the major contribution she makes is to invite us as readers to venture inside Vicky's personal spirituality and thought world. That's a cherished place where we need to tread carefully and respectfully as we consider how to respond. For we are accompanying her on what is possibly the most fraught journey any of us ever have to undertake, that of not only searching for and discovering who we are, but learning how to speak about it before others.

This is what makes Vicky's book more than mere memoir. I want to describe it as a necessary act of witness. That word means pointing to the fundamental truth that belongs to the story we tell. I used the phrase truth-seeking earlier. Witness is about truth-telling. It always has a public aspect to it, the assumption being that where truth is at stake, we bear witness before other people to what we have seen and heard. The lived experience is the thing. No doubt Vicky will have "borne witness" to her Christian faith hundreds of times at the evangelistic events she has taken part in. That's a privileged but often costly thing to do, for it involves declaring who we really are. Now she has had to learn what for her has proved an even more costly way of bearing witness that entails disclosing another, hitherto concealed, dimension of her persona. I come back to her integrity and bravery once again, in being willing to tell us: "this is who I am under God".

But Vicky is doing more than bearing witness to the importance of personal integrity in human life. The book is a plea to all Christians, especially conservative evangelicals, to revisit their attitudes to LGBTQ+ people. The visceral hatred exemplified in some of the interactions quoted by Vicky ought to have no place in any community of faith that wants to live according to New Testament principles. Differences there will always be, "good disagreement" as we are learning to call it. But always with respect, courtesy and above all, charity. We ought to have learned the hard way by now that discrimination is always a sin against the image of God in humanity. The book bears witness to necessity of honouring that truth in the church. We all subscribe to it. But as Vicky makes painfully clear, living out that aspiration is another matter entirely.

What do I take from the book? Two things especially. The first is how damaging it can be for LGBTQ+ people to suppress their identity for fear of what others will think of them. It's entirely understandable, and Vicky's story explains why. But the damage can be extremely hard to put right and can take a lifetime. She writes about the experience of shame in relation to affection and intimacy. The sexual dimension of this is something I understand well from my own formation as a teenager within conservative evangelicalism. But in Vicky's case her denial of her sexuality was also associated with distressing mental and physical illness that required specialist intervention. It's shocking that even in the so-called enlightened societies of the west, there are still suicides among the young due to the shame they feel about their sexuality or the public disapproval they experience. Vicky's book will help young Christian readers conflicted by their own sexuality not only to befriend it but to discover how the vision of radical inclusion as "beautiful, restorative, and life-giving" is truly transformational.

The second thing I take from the book is how urgent it now is for the churches to affirm same-sex relationships publicly and embrace equal marriage. Some have already done so, but not yet the Church of England. I last blogged about this in early 2017. It's not just a question of how we as a church welcome and embrace our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and celebrate their covenanted relationships. It's about how we become a genuinely inclusive church that recognises and honours the God-given humanity of every person. I believe that the C of E will in time recognise and celebrate equal marriage among its laity and clergy, just as it came round to accepting contraception and the remarriage of divorced people in the twentieth century. I hope that this time, however, we do better than merely "come round to accepting" same-sex relationships. I hope that we shall want to affirm them generously and gladly. My hunch is that there is now a majority among the active membership of the C of E who want to press for change. Let's hope it happens in our own lifetimes.

Thank you Vicky for your courage and candour in writing, and for the rich gift of your personal and spiritual experience. Thank you for a book that has helped me see things more clearly. You are part of the movement for change in our church. May it happen quickly.

4 comments:

  1. Sometimes we need to stand back and examine our own conscience, particularly in terms of our ideas and prejudices. Even the unconscience bias, that we perhaps have unrecognised.

    I have long thought that the Church is biased against people in loving, committed same sex relationships, but it isn't until someone like Vicki draws our attention to the level of hatred and abuse that can exist in people, who nominally call themselves Christian, but are anything but.

    If we truly operate in accordance with Jesus' greatest commandments, such behaviour should not exist in any church, worthy of Jesus' name.

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  2. Whatever you think about the rights or wrongs of LGBTQ+ people, the quote from the anonymous twitterer "The church is meant to be exclusive, keeping out sin and sinners" is just so unbiblical as to be astonishing. Jesus did not keep out sinners he invited himself into their houses and thereby upset the religious authorities of his time. He could not invite them into his house - because he did not have one at the time!

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  3. Michael
    Anyone who wants to come to his own convictions about what the Bible means on controversial matters (to come humbly, self-critically, ready to have his mind changed, and in the fear of God), is looking for the strongest views from all sides in the disagreement, and the strengths and weaknesses of possible counter arguments, as he tries to evaluate competing understandings of what the Bible means.
    To seriously consider these strongest views is perilous. It forces us to understand views we disagree with at their best, and exposes our own convictions to the strongest possible challenges. Our convictions may survive those challenges, or we may, in self-critical honesty, be forced to change them. We all know how traumatic and humbling that is. It also may compel us to accept truths that we in our natural fallen state do not want to be true. And there is another important disagreement. Should we rely solely on the Bible for truth on questions which the Bible speaks about or should we also factor in our experiences and convictions which are not derived from the Bible but which we believe are directly from God.
    I believe you when you say that Vicki’s book is a sincere, candid and painful testimony. I agree that disagreements between Christians on what the Bible means should be conducted with courtesy. But the disagreements are often, as in this case, vital and real. My view is that all our experiences and convictions, however sincere and fervent, should be scrutinised and challenged in the light of the Bible.
    The disagreement about same-sex attraction would appear to have largely lacked the context of the doctrine of Original Sin. Are we all agreed that Article 9 is true, with its teaching that we are all born with a corrupt nature inclined to evil? I don’t think we are all agreed it is true. But the truth of this doctrine is essential in the same-sex disagreement. Romans 1-3 is universal in its scope and about all humanity as a result of the Fall. Paul is setting out a universal gospel for a universal human condition. What other explanation can there be of the descriptions of humanity given in 1-3 other than the Fall? ‘Natural’ (1:26-27) therefore means the ‘very good’ male-female sexual attraction as created by God before the Fall intervened.
    Throughout the Bible, in a remarkable constellation of interrelated pictures, the husband-wife relationship is used to illustrate God’s relationship with his people and Christ’s relationship with the Church. Asymmetry is a key feature of these relationships. Those in Christ, male and female, (whether married, remarried, single, divorced, separated, widows, widowers) are all ‘female’ in this relationship.
    By denying that the male/female asymmetry of the sexual act and the sexual attraction which precedes it is essential, homosexuality shatters this constellation.
    In the light of these pictures it is inconceivable that same-sex attraction could have been part of the ‘very good’, asymmetric, pre-Fall human nature described in Genesis 1 and 2.
    But people like me, who hold these views, have to be aware of beams in our own eyes. I mean this: the picture of mortification which Christ uses, of plucking out an eye and cutting off a hand warn us of the excruciating experience (so vividly described by Jayne Ozanne and others) when we try, really try, to put to death our members on the earth. Have I tried, really tried, tried to the point of agony, to mortify my failure to obey the command to be content with food and clothing and give the money saved to those in need? The Bible says much more about such sacrifices than about homosexuality. We humans, we sinners, are all in the same boat because of the Fall. We all have some sinful tendency to mortify.
    Phil Almond

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